By Jajuan Johnson, Ph.D., Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate
The Oak Grove Baptist Church Historic District in northwest York County, Virginia was granted historic designation by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources leading up to the Juneteenth, a national holiday commemorating the ending of slavery, specifically in Texas on June 19, 1865. Placement on the state register of historic places and eligibility for national recognition is monumental in the church’s history dating back to the early 19th century. The following sites are associated with the Oak Grove Baptist Church Historic District: Oak Grove Baptist Church site on Rochambeau Drive, Oak Grove School site, Oak Grove Cemetery on Rochambeau Drive, and the current Oak Grove Baptist Church on Waller Mill Road.
The Lemon Project collaboration with Oak Grove Baptist Church emerged from the research of Ellie Renshaw, a recent graduate of the anthropology department. Her senior thesis, “Cultivation Through Excavation: Performing Community and Partnership in the Historic First Baptist Project” led to further revelations about “daughter churches” of the Historic First Baptist Church such as Oak Grove Baptist Church, St. John Baptist Church, New Quarter Baptist Church and Zion Baptist Church, all in the Williamsburg/York County area. She connected our team with Mrs. Collette Roots, a leader of the Friends of Oak Grove Baptist Church, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the church building, the two cemeteries tied to the church, and the history of the once Cooktown community where the church is currently located.
The church building and some members were once part of Magruder, a community of African Americans forcibly displaced during World War II to create Camp Peary, a military training ground. The series of forcible removals due to eminent domain resulted in the loss of place and community identity. Last fall, the church members invited Lemon Project researchers to assist with documenting its story through oral history. Generations of parishioners living and deceased were employed by William & Mary and are a critical part of the university’s history. A series of oral histories on the travesty of land loss, the disbanding of communities, and the dynamics of labor and class are unearthing stories tethered to the afterlives of slavery not only specific to Williamsburg but across the nation. Also, Derek Vouri-Richard, a Lemon Project American Studies Graduate Assistant, mined land records to trace the history of land ownership tied to Oak Grove Baptist Church during the turn of the twentieth century.
Recently, the Friends of Oak Grove Baptist Church provided a tour of the church and the historic cemetery, highlighting veteran burial sites dating back to the Civil War, for the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Community Curation team partnering with the Lemon Project to assist African American communities in curating their own stories. In keeping with the Lemon Project’s goal to be a national model of transformative community engagement and collaborative research, we continue to listen to the stories and assess the ways we can contribute to materializing the vision of our partners. Congratulations to Oak Grove Baptist Church Historic District on cementing its enduring legacy in the York County/Williamsburg area.
By Caroline Watson, Lemon Project Anthropology Graduate Assistant
A common expression in archaeological communities is that theoretical interpretation happens “at the trowel’s edge”. While this expression falls trite on my ears, what it implies is actually quite important for archaeologists, and those conducting research more broadly, to remember. There is no “neutral” moment in archaeological interpretation. Research questions are defined by specific and sometimes exclusive interests. Decisions regarding excavation locations tend to be controlled by the entity funding the work. Materials that come out of the ground are immediately observed and later classified according to object type and perceived function. Finally, where and how archaeological collections are stored also depends on the result of this interpretative process.
In some ways, this process is not purposefully harmful. I’d like to believe most archaeologists do their best to work with reference collections and available published literature to make sure they’re classifying their findings in the most appropriate ways. Nevertheless, artifact classification, especially when approached uncritically, becomes harmful through exclusionary acts. In the case of William & Mary’s archaeological collections, we know a lot about what types of artifacts were used on Historic Campus over the years, but we lack a critical inquiry about who these objects are associated with.
My ongoing documentary analysis of the records and reports relating to archaeology at William & Mary reveals that most archaeological work done on campus has not been guided by the interest to know more about William & Mary’s history with slavery. When archaeological projects at their very core are not designed to question or consider the African and/or African American presence on campus, then how will we ever be able to associate excavated materials with this identity? Archaeologists who assume a “neutral” identity for artifacts until proven otherwise end up, in one way or another, upholding the narrative of campus as an historically and predominately white, elite space. Neutrality is rarely possible. All objects are found within a geographical and sociocultural context. Thus, in a setting like William & Mary, when archaeological findings are taken “as is”, their neutral identity by default is white and colonial. In turn, the artifacts that get flagged as potentially embodying an African or African American identity on campus are the ones we view as being most obviously not white. The marble that was incised with an “X” design found in the north Wren yard has been interpreted as a potential gaming piece used by enslaved people. A cowrie shell, found nearby and within the same stratigraphic level (so, similar time period), may have been a piece of adornment or a medium of exchange for an enslaved person. We value these artifacts for the window, however so small, they provide into the material lives of enslaved people on campus. Yet, what about the tobacco clay pipes, clothing materials, and countless cooking and drinking vessels that have been found on campus in similar locations? We fail to link these materials to non-white identities, which further relegates African Americans on Historic Campus to the “unique” objects and thus margins of William & Mary’s material history. Without a critical examination of our own classification norms, there will never be a broader space for African Americans in William & Mary’s archaeological collections.
I propose we think of William & Mary’s campus and the materials that lie both above and underneath its surface, as an archive. This archive is not a neutral or passive place, but a carefully picked model and the result of several layers of power-laden decisions. Archaeologists working on campus and with campus artifacts hold one form of this power and thus face the certain decision to either uphold campus as a colonial archive or work to expose it. There is much work to be done to get at a more holistic understanding of the material lives of enslaved people at William & Mary. This may require more digging, or maybe it simply requires us to establish a new relationship with the collections we already have. Regardless, perhaps the question we can all start with is, “who are we doing this work for?”.
Image: Screenshot from Higgins III & Underwood 2001: 72, showing incised marble and cowrie shell.
 Higgins III, T.F. & J.R. Underwood (2001). Secrets of the Historic Campus: Archaeological Investigations in the Wren Yard at the College of William and Mary, 1999-2000. WMCAR Project No. 99-26. William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research. This is a really extensive report—I suggest checking it out!
 This idea was born out of a broader paradigm shift in archaeological theory that sought a more critical examination of the archeologists’ positionality, authority, and role in knowledge verification. If you’re curious about where this all started, see Hodder, Ian (1997) Always momentary, fluid and flexible: towards a reflexive excavation methodology. Antiquity 71: 691-700.
 There has been one archaeological excavation that specifically designed its research questions to address the history of slavery on campus. See Monroe, E.J. & D.W. Lewes (2016). Archaeological Assessment of a Site near the Alumni House and the Early College Boundary, College of William and Mary, City of Williamsburg, Virginia. WMCAR Project No. 15-07. William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research.
The Lemon Project Genealogy Initiative started in fall 2021 to locate enslaved persons directly or indirectly tied to William & Mary. To date, we’ve hosted numerous workshops for beginner and advanced genealogists, trained a group of budding family historians at James Blair Middle School, and built relationships with descendants of the enslaved in the Historic Triangle area and beyond.
The genealogy initiative is part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project called “Sharing Authority to Remember and Re-interpret the Past.” The program builds on the research and community engagement of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. In 2009, the college established the project to “acknowledge and rectify wrongs against African Americans at W&M, whether through action or inaction.” Since its inception, the Lemon Project contributed to a greater understanding of the university’s role in slavery while creating fuller narratives of the enslaved.
Finding research clues about enslaved persons of the 17th and 18th centuries is a feat that requires a host of stakeholders, from archivists to descendants. Our method of learning more about the enslaved and their familial connections begins with the list of persons we are continuing to find in historical records, from bursar’s reports to church records. Recently, we’ve gained clues from a research inquiry of a relative searching for an ancestor possibly in our list of enslaved persons.
The genealogy research method is not only potentially reparative in helping us learn more about the lives of free, freed, and enslaved persons, but it also empowers descendants unearthing details about ancestors relegated to the shadows of history. Perusing census records, tax records, and family papers in special collections enables descendants to correct deliberate historical omissions and write African Americans into history.
Genealogy research is a collective enterprise between fellow genealogists, archivists, family members, community historians, and institutions engaging in similar work. William and Mary is affiliated with the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium, which provides a forum for institutions to develop best practices in “truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories.” Upon starting this post-doctoral research project, I’ve collaborated with Dr. Shelley Murphy with the Descendant Project Research at the University of Virginia, creating research methodologies, delving into newly digitized records, and connecting with descendant researchers.
A few months ago, I was introduced to descendant researcher Vicki McGill by Dr. Murphy. Vicki searched for ancestors enslaved in Williamsburg by Mary Stith, the daughter of William & Mary’s third president, Reverend William Stith. Our joint effort led to new information providing a greater understanding about her ancestors and slavery in the Historic Triangle area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of this research initiative, I’ve invited Vicki to join me in sharing her story about finding more records about her enslaved ancestors and the challenging but worthwhile process of doing this type of research.
Vicki McGill on Finding Benjamin White, Sr. and Benjamin White, Jr.
I often spend Friday evenings searching the Freedmen’s Bureau archives and other records as part of Dr. Shelley Murphy’s “Freedmen Friday” group on Zoom. One evening I decided to submit my fourth and fifth grandfather’s ancestors Benjamin White and Benjamin White Jr., who showed up as enslaved people held by a woman named Mary Stith who lived in Williamsburg, Virginia.
During an intake session with Dr. Murphy, I shared a research report from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library on the Mary Stith Shop that mentioned Benjamin White and his son Benjamin White, Jr., census records indicating Williamsburg and, later, York County residence.
After sharing my findings with Dr. Murphy, I realized my ancestors resided closer to William & Mary than UVA, which led to the connection with Dr. Jajuan Johnson, who was doing the same work with the Lemon Project. The linkage demonstrates the importance of institutional collaboration in researching enslaved and freed persons. The referral to Dr. Johnson led to further discoveries expanding the narrative of my ancestors, especially learning about their indirect and direct linkages to the early leadership of W&M.
Moving Through Research Barriers and New Discoveries
Learning the possible existence of a document listing your ancestor is a significant step in genealogy research. I encourage researchers to closely examine every record instead of relying on a transcription that may contain errors by the transcriber or omitted references about the document. The Mary Stith Shop report reveals she enslaved and emancipated Benjamin White. He later freed his son Benjamin White Jr. As mentioned, it’s essential to verify findings with other sources, which prompted Dr. Johnson and me to explore further.
During a trip to the Library of Virginia, I was able to dive deeper into the records. After a couple of hours searching the York County Deeds of Emancipation on microfilm, I found records for both ancestors. Analyzing the deed for Benjamin Jr., I learned his father purchased his freedom from John Blair, Jr., which clarified the father and son were enslaved by two different families, which prompted questions about the connections between the two families.
After sharing this discovery with Dr. Johnson, I inquired about the “Honorable John Blair” listed in the records. He responded by sharing that he was the nephew of James Blair, founder, and first president of William & Mary. Well, this was a significant breakthrough! Further research into Blair revealed my ancestor and countless other men, women, and children were enslaved by a man connected to the founding of this country. He was a delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 and one of three Virginia delegates to sign the Constitution and later became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.
The findings so far relate to the early lives of Benjamin White Jr. and his father. Recent clues include connections to Gowan Pamphlet, an early pastor of First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. Ultimately, I would like to determine how their descendant Richmond White, my third great grandfather, was born in Richmond, Virginia, around 1860, migrated to Williamsburg County, South Carolina, where some of his descendants still reside. Others migrated to other cities and states from that area.
Jajuan Johnson and Vicki McGill on Genealogy and Reparative Visions
Discovering that your ancestor was enslaved by one of the most prominent families in colonial Virginia, a drafter of both the Virginia and United States constitutions and whose signature is on the U.S. Constitution – the document you see on school trips to the National Archives Museum. Finding out that he was an inaugural U.S. Supreme Court Justice gives one pause at realizing your ancestor’s proximity to the founding of this nation.
It raises questions about what your ancestors witnessed, and the potential of their lives void of enslavement. What if they had the opportunity to participate in the proceedings they possibly observed. How would the lives of their descendants be different if they had the right to read and write, or attend William & Mary? These discoveries also prompt considerations on how our enslaved ancestors built this county and created the generational wealth the descendants of their enslavers still enjoy today. The research illustrates the need for restorative and reparative efforts for descendants whose ancestors built this county and many of the well-funded and endowed universities within this nation.
The Mellon Foundation funded projects such as “Sharing Authority to Remember and Re-interpret the Past” is one step in facing implications of unjust pasts that can potentially result in tangible forms of redress. In the meantime, we will work diligently in the production of new histories centering the dignity of the oppressed that prefigure possibilities.
The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation has been working for over a decade. The Lemon Project team has grown from one lecturer to include one director, an associate director, a postdoctoral fellow, two graduate assistants, and 35 undergraduate and graduate student affiliates in the Lemon Project Society. Our on- and off-campus community has grown even more. We have forged partnerships with community organizations in the Tidewater area, and we have had a leadership role in the growth of the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium (USS). At every stage in the last thirteen years, our growth has been grounded in the spark from the 2007 Student Assembly Resolution that started it all.
As we continue the second decade of living up to this vision, we remain steadfast in our commitments to our core goals to:
contribute to and encourage scholarship on the 329-year relationship between Africans and African Americans and William & Mary
build bridges between the university and Williamsburg and Greater Tidewater area
join in the effort to make the current campus a safe, comfortable, and productive space for current students of color
continue and expand our leadership role in the growing national and international movement of colleges and universities studying their full histories as they relate to slavery and its legacies.
And today, we launch this blog as part of our commitment to inviting the Williamsburg community, the USS community, and of course, William & Mary students, alumni, staff, and faculty, to join us on our ongoing “journey of reconciliation.” Much of our work is intentionally public-facing: we showcase new findings and interpretations on our website and celebrate it at the annual symposium; we partner with grassroots community organizations advocating for racial equity in the Tidewater region; and we organize and support programming for undergraduates through the Lemon Project Society.
But have you ever wondered what we actually do and see in the archives? How do we find community partners? Or what happens in a meeting of the Lemon Project Society, Branch Out weekend, or at Lemon’s Learners, our summer program for middle school students? The Lemon Project Blog will give you a behind-the-scenes look at how we interpret archival materials, develop community building programming, and how we learn with and from our undergraduate affiliates. Through this new medium, we will be able to share our process with our whole community.
We welcome submissions from anyone who shares our interest in African American and African Diaspora history, social justice concerns, and The Lemon Project’s 4 major goals. Blog posts might, for instance, speak about new historical findings relevant to understanding the university’s 329-year relationship with African American communities, reflect on relevant current events or community programs, or amplify the voices of Black students and community members.